Sunday 30 October 2011

Bargello Update - October 2011

My recent stitching work started and ended with something completely different.  Though most of my work continues to be various forms of Bargello, these two funnily enough were not.  The first was a Zigouigoui or two Zigouigouis to be precise.  I had never come across or even heard of such a thing before, but found them in Louison's ever interesting Biscornu blog.  A Zigouigoui is apparently a very small cushion and some stitchers had used Louison's biscornu designs to make a Zigouigoui.  So I decided to join them and used grilles 99 and 104.  Here are the completed pieces.
 The fabric is 19ct Aida in Christmas red and one zigouigoui is in emerald green and the other in electric blue.  Both use two strands of DMC cotton thread.  The now hang by our fireplace.

For my next project I finally managed to use up just about all of my stash of wool threads.  The design comes from Bargello Magic by Pauline Fisher and Anabel Lasker.  It is No 5 in a series called Fused Diamonds.  It is quite large for me - 38cmx46cm.  This is what it looks like.
The fabric is an antique double canvas and the colours were just what was left in my stash.

Next up was another Bargello design - Petals from The Bargello Book by Frances Salter.  The fabric is 18ct Aida in pale green and the threads are two strands of DMC cotton.  So far I have completed two pieces in this design.
The first was in violet and lavender and the second in shades of blue.  I  intend to do one more of this design in another colour scheme.  The idea is to hang them together in a vertical frame.

While in Switzerland I gave away some of my work - I am running out of space to keep them all.  Emma's friends and in-laws are the happy recipients.  I brought out some other examples of my work just for show and some of her friends were quite keen to get their own version of some of them.  It's always nice to make something for somebody, especially if it's someone you know.  So I now have to stitch three versions of No 5 in the Five Easy Pieces series.  They all wanted the same colour scheme.  Here is the first one.
Arlene wanted design No 3 from the same series, but in a different colour scheme, which made it a bit more interesting for me.  I have now completed this in reds and plums.
I need to get the remaining two pieces finished before Christmas as Emma is due to take them back with her after her holiday here.

The final piece I have just completed is a first for me and pretty much my own design.  I say pretty much as the basic pattern is an example of a Fractal.  Emma's brother-in-law, Luca, introduced me to the world of fractals.  I won't even try to explain what a fractal is, but if you google some images you will discover a weird and wonderful world out there.  Anyway, I used a particular fractal as the basis for this particular project.  It is an octomino and this is the basic shape, which as you can see is made up of eight squares - hence the name.
This octomino can then be used to make up what is known as Brigid's octomino similarity tiling.  
Basically eight octominos combine to form a bigger octomino which in turn combine to make an even bigger octomino.  The process can go on indefinitely, though you do end up with an awful lot of octominos.  The one above has 64 of them.  The next in the series has 512!

I chose the one with 64 octominos for my design.  To get a good contrast I used a bright Christmas red 18ct Aida fabric.  To highlight the octominos I used two colour schemes.  Blues for the outer octominos and greens for the inner ones.  Here is what it looks like.
Each square of the octomino is a Scotch stitch over two intersections.  I will experiment further with this pattern - different stitches, different colours and any other variations I can come up with.

I close this post with a photo of an earlier piece which I stitched for Emma.  It has a centre in Ripples surrounded by Hungarian stitch in yellow and orange.  Unfortunately the photo doesn't clearly show the colours in the centre - they are white, brown and green.  It is now finished and sits in the middle of a fabric I found in a fabric shop.  A simple alternative to framing.  Good stitching to one and all.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Saving the Euro?

The recent EU summit meeting in Brussels has surprised most people.  It looks like they have come up with a three point plan to save the Euro.  And the immediate reaction of the markets has been very favourable.  After months of wrangling and doing very little have our leaders finally lanced the boil of the financial crisis?
The short answer is no, but they seem to have come up with enough to pacify the markets for the time being.  This involves a 50% haircut on Greek debt, a further recapitalisation of banks and an improved fund (the EFSF) to provide medium term support to Italy and Spain.  The key words here are medium term.  Let’s say until spring of next year.  By then a lot more will need to be done.  
Basically there are two immediate challenges for the Eurozone.  The first is to get their own house in order to ensure that the likes of Spain and Italy are protected against further speculation.  To this end the Eurozone countries need to come up with a credible plan and timetable for creating some kind of fiscal union.  It need not be a full fiscal union as the USA, but it needs to be credible enough to satisfy the markets.  They need to start work on this soon and we will need to know the outcome by early next year.
The other challenge facing the Eurozone, along with most of the rest of the world, is how to get their economies growing again.  For example if Greece does not start to grow again very soon it will once again be unable to repay its national debt, even with the current 50% haircut.  The same will apply to Italy and Spain.  How this growth is to happen as long as the EU, including the UK, stick to harsher and harsher austerity measures is a bit of a mystery.  Things are not looking good.

Monday 24 October 2011

A is for Jane Austen

This is the first post in what I hope will be an A-Z of my favourite writers.  Jane Austen is not just first on the list, but without a doubt one of my all time favourite authors.  I’ve read all of her novels, most more than once.  And enjoyed them all apart from her early attempt at Gothic horror - Northanger Abbey. 
What I find most alluring is her use of language.  Not just the famous use of irony, but the way she is able to turn a simple description or tale into a work of beauty.  It is just a great pleasure to read any of her works.  Here for example is the first sentence of Emma, where the little word seemed changes what is an apparent glowing tribute to the novel’s heroine into something like its opposite.  “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Another example of her art of using a character’s good points to expose that person’s worst aspects comes in Persuasion with this delightful and deadly character assassination of Walter Elliot.  “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did, nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.
The main complaint I have about her novels is that they contain a few too many stock, comic characters that stretch the imagination to believe in.  Emma’s father for example or Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  Perhaps there were real people like them in Austen’s time.  For another of her strengths is that her novels are very much set in a particular place and time.  Nobody seriously challenges the existing order.  While her novels all feature very strong and powerful women characters, they all succeed within the existing social norms.  A good marriage and a reliable income was the sine qua non for a contented life.  Not much has really changed.
There are now so many editions of her novels available, that a reader faces an embarrassment of riches.  If you don’t want to buy a book and are happy to read from your computer screen has all her works available online for free.
Jane Austen’s works have proved very popular with film makers, both for the big screen and TV.  One of the most successful and critically acclaimed productions was the 1995 TV adaptation with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the main roles.  With six one hour episodes this mini series managed to include most of the novel’s key scenes.  
Of the film adaptations my favourite is definitely Sense and Sensibility.  And there are two fine versions to cherish.  The more well known is the 1996 version directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay by Emma Thompson, who also starred in the film alongside Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman.  

For something less well know and completely different I would recommend Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000), the Tamil language film.  Also known as I Have Found It, this wonderful Bollywood type film is a sheer joy to watch.  Directed by Rajiv Menon who wrote the screenplay along with Sujatha.  The film stars Aishwarya Rai, Tabu, Mommootty and Ajith Kumar with music by A R Rahman.  This version of Sense and Sensibility sets the action in modern day Tamil Nadu.  It works wonderfully well and the music and dance sequences are a joy to behold and hear.  If you do get a hold of a copy watch out for the song and dance sequence filmed at our very own Eilean Donan Castle in western Scotland.  To whet your appetite you can see this for yourself here.

Friday 21 October 2011

It’s Osborne’s Recession

Recently we have had a seemingly never ending succession of bad news about the UK economy.  All the indicators and forecasts suggest that we are in for a very bumpy ride ahead.  If we are not in recession we are pretty close to it.  It also seems that our national debt is getting bigger not smaller.  Now all this is bad news for our nasty Coalition and the Chancellor in particular.  So he and his chums in the media have taken to blaming the crisis in the Eurozone for our troubles.  If only these fickle foreigners would get their act together then everything would be fine and dandy over here.
No matter how loudly and how often this line is repeated it remains untrue, and as near a lie as one can get.  Even the IMF, that bastion of fiscal austerity has challenged the government’s li(n)e.  According to their latest report on Europe, the reason the UK has experienced a large build up in public debt is because of the costs of the large loss of output following the crisis.  And of course this large loss of output is directly down to decisions taken by one George Osborne.  Raising VAT, freezing public sector wages, reducing welfare payments and engineering a large rise in unemployment through cuts in the public services can only have one outcome - a severe reduction in demand leading to a large loss of output.  Not quite the story of public sector profligacy the government is usually so keen to tell.
The recent forecasts for the economy are also very revealing about the true source of our economic woes.  Not only do they agree that there is likely to be substantially less growth in the economy overall - down from 2% to 1%, but the source of this anemic growth has changed.  More details here.  Forecasters now expect domestic demand to subtract 0.4% from the economy as consumers, business and government all cut back whilst they expect net trade to add 1.3%, much more than previously.  So despite the Eurozone crisis our exports are likely to hold up.  What this means of course is that our continued economic woes are all down to Osborne himself and his misguided policies.  Time to stop trying to blame someone else.

Monday 17 October 2011

Take Six Books - October 2011

I have changed this to Six Books as I have recently bought some books.  Though I have decided to keep with an audiobook.  So here is my current crop of books.
The book I’m currently reading - Brighton Rock by Graham Green.  This is the reading group’s choice for the month.  I’ve never read it before, neither have I seen either of the film versions.  So I was quite surprised by the novel.  Not at all what I expected.  It is a darkly funny tale at times and betrays Greene catholicism or at least its obsession with sex, guilt and death.  Very enjoyable.
The last book I finished - Plata Quemada by Ricardo Piglia.  At last I have got round to reading something for the Ficciones Argentinian reading challenge.  Based on a true bank robbery in the 1960s in Buenos Aires.  Not a traditional crime novel in any sense, as we know from the beginning who did it and also know more or less how it ends.  However instead Piglia takes us inside the minds of the main characters and a pretty weird, violent and unattractive place this is.  Good book.
The next book I want to read -  Echoes from the Dead by JohanTheorin.  This is part of my gradual exploration of new Scandinavian writers.  Theorin is from Sweden and this is his first novel.  It is set in the island of Öland off the east coast of the country.  All about a young boy who went missing some time ago.
The last audiobook I listened to - The Gallow’s Bird by Camilla Läckberg.  This is the fourth of Läckberg’s novels I have listened to and all have been very enjoyable.  Läckberg is another Swedish crime writer, and The Gallow’s Bird, like the others, is set in a small town on the west coast of Sweden.  As with the others in the series this is as much about the personal lives of the detectives as the actual murders.  A pretty chilling tale though.

The last book I was given -  Willing Flesh by Adam Creed.  This will be a new one for me, as I have never come across the author before.  Creed is an English writer and this is the second of his novels to feature Detective Inspector Staffe.

The last book I bought - To the Ends of the Earth by T. M Devine.  A rare occurrence for me - buying a book!  Professor Devine’s book is the history of Scotland’s global diaspora as the subtitle puts it.  It has had some great reviews and the man himself came to Dundee to give a talk about the book.  So I just had to get a copy.  This is one book I will take my time to read.  One to dip into and return to.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Palestinian Prisoners

The recent news that agreement has been reached to secure the release of an Israeli soldier in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners is most welcome.  Especially for all those who will be released.  However it should not obscure the reality of Israel’s ongoing attack on Palestinians.
For example, since the military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, Israel has imprisoned more than 700,000 Palestinians.  This represents around 20% of the population.  Just take a moment or two to reflect on this.  Some 20% of the population of Palestine has been imprisoned by the Israelis over the past 40 years.
Currently there are, according to the Israel Prison Service, approximately 5,200 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.  The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights claims that more than 6,000 Palestinians are in prison.
It is also important to note that though these Palestinian prisoners are civilians they are dealt with by Israeli military courts.  This in itself is against UN conventions.  In addition human rights organizations have found wide spread abuses of the accused people’s rights, including interrogation without the presence of a lawyer.
All this of course in the context of an ongoing occupation.  Any kind of resistance to this brutal occupation is met with arrest and subsequent imprisonment via a military court.  It should also be noted that most of this resistance to the occupation is either peaceful - marches, demonstrations etc - or involves throwing stones.   Not the sort of activities that would normally get you imprisoned in the UK.  Even in Northern Ireland during the height of the troubles, was there such a heavy handed resort to imprisonment.
The treatment of Palestinian prisoners within Israeli prisons leaves much to be desired.   Amnesty International has reported “consistent allegations of torture and other ill-treatment, including of children. Among the most commonly cited methods were beatings, threats to the detainee or their family, sleep deprivation, and being subjected to painful stress positions for long periods.”
It seems that things have got even worse.  As a result since September 27, thousands of Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their incarceration. They have made several key demands, including an end to abusive isolation, restrictions on higher education in prisons, denial of books and newspapers, shackling, excessive fines, and most importantly, an end to all forms of collective punishment, including the refusal of family visits, night searches of prisoners’ cells, and the denial of basic health treatment.
While news of the release of Gilad Shalit has made the front pages of newspapers world wide, little has been reported about this hunger strike, which is now in its third week.  Let us hope that amid the joy at the release of some Palestinian prisoners, the world’s media turn some attention to the conditions of the remaining prisoners.
For more information about Palestinian prisoners, see this fact sheet published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding.

Monday 10 October 2011

Photo of the Month - September 2011

September has become our favourite month for visiting Switzerland.  This has something to do with the fact that Alessio's birthday is on 3rd September and this year he was five as you can just make out as he tries to blow out all the candles on his yummy cake.
One of our great pleasures when in Switzerland is to just wander around Zürich and other towns looking at some of the wonderful sights.  Zürich doesn't have any real skycrapers, but recently they did build Prime Tower, which is by far the biggest and highest building in the city.  Below are a couple of views of the place.
On a completely different scale is this rather unusual and somewhat "in your face" family home which I came across in Kilchberg.
Zürich is a pretty bright and lively city and below is my attempt to capture the city at night.
Switzerland is also a great place for window shopping.  With the exchange rate so poor, it is just about the only shopping we can afford.  However the window displays are so beautifully arranged that it is a pleasure to linger by some of them.  Here are a couple.

Everywhere in Switzerland you come across public drinking fountains.  Usually they are very simple affairs, and in autumn they begin to fill up with falling leaves.  This often makes for some beautiful displays as in the one below, taken in Rüschlikon.
The holiday is of course also a time to relax and luckily we always manage to sneak in some R&R, usually accompanied by a glass of fine wine.
Though we are based in Zürich, we always manage to visit other parts of Switzerland.  One of our trips was to Schaffhausen where we visited the Rheinfall, the largest waterfall in Europe.  Nothing compared to the giants elsewhere in the world, but still, pretty impressive.
Our main trip this time was to Zermatt, a ski resort in the south of the country near the Italian border.  We had glorious sunny weather and had a wonderful time going up the mountain railways and admiring the views.  Below is Alessio in reflective mode just below the summit of the Gornergrat at 3,100m and then the Matterhorn itself the iconic mountain of the area.

Back in Scotland things returned to a slightly slower pace.  But we still managed to fit in one more outing, this time to an Apple Day at the Botanical Gardens in St Andrews.  We went with Elena and her boys and there was plenty for them to do, including crushing apples to make apple juice.  They also got to try out a special tool for coring and peeling apples as demonstrated by Jamie below.

I end September with this photo of a rather colourful butterfly which we found attached to a wall on one of the houses in our street.

Thursday 6 October 2011

Does the Tory Party have a Future in Scotland?

That is a future other than stagnating at around 16% of the electorate.  This a question for all the Unionist parties, but is particularly urgent for the Scottish Tories as they are in the middle of a leadership election.  And one of the candidates - Murdo Fraser - has come up with a novel and rather daring solution to the crisis of Toryism in Scotland.  His solution is to disband the current party - The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party - and begin afresh with a new party with a new name.  Alan Trench has written an interesting piece here, showing that this proposal is in tune with developments elsewhere in the world.
There is a lot to be said for this idea, and at the very least shows that some Tories are aware of how much Scotland has changed over the last two or three decades.  Which is more than can be said of either the LibDems or Labour.  However merely changing the name is unlikely to make much of a difference.  If a new centre-right party is to succeed then it needs to accept the key reality of politics in Scotland now.  All opinion polls, not to mention actual votes, confirm that the overwhelming majority of Scots want their politicians and their political parties to put Scotland first.  To stand up for Scotland as it is often popularly expressed.  In the key constitutional question this translates into an expressed demand for the Scottish Parliament to be given substantially more powers, including financial and economic powers.  Indeed most Scots want their Parliament to have more or less full control over taxation.  Instead of a block grant coming from London to Edinburgh, the Scottish Government would send a cheque down to London to cover Scotland’s share of the remaining UK matters - primarily defence, foreign affairs and whatever else was felt to be better dealt with at a UK wide level.
Such a policy change to what is often referred to as fiscal responsibility, should be natural territory for a centre-right party.  It would ensure that future Scottish governments could only promise to spend what they were prepared to raise in taxes.  There would be no-one else to blame.  This is the kind of thing the Tories are always going on about - getting rid of the dependency culture, standing on your two feet, taking responsibility etc.
This policy has the great added advantage of making it clear that the new party is indeed a Scottish party, beholden to no-one else.  The new party could and probably will have clear links with the Conservative party in England and Wales, but it would in fact and in deed be an independent party.  Maintaining the UK would remain a key part of their programme, but the emphasis would clearly be on Scotland.  Since polls show that this is want most Scots want - a more powerful parliament, but remaining within the UK - the new party would for the first time in decades be in tune with majority opinion in Scotland.  
The other advantage that would come from such a policy change is that the new party could expect to attract a lot of popular support for its centre-right policies.  For despite appearances to the contrary, Scotland has historically been a predominantly centre-right country.  The only party to win over 50% of the popular vote in a general election was the old Tory party, way back in the mid 1950s.   There has been a steady decline since then, which became a flood with the rise of Thatcherism which was massively rejected by almost all sections of Scottish opinion.  The final blow came with the rise of the SNP, who were originally dubbed the Tartan Tories by their political opponents.  This would seem to indicate that there is fertile ground for a  centre-right party that is seen to be authentically Scottish and one that puts Scottish interests first.
But herein perhaps lies the rub.  For the current Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party seems to have become reduced to primarily representing those who are more attached to the UK than to Scotland.  It is telling that of the four candidates standing for the leadership, only one, the aforementioned Murdo Fraser, is calling for this radical change in direction.  The party seems to be bitterly divided over this proposal.  The danger for the Tories is that if they reject Murdo Fraser and his vision, they become an even more marginalised party.  A rump of embittered right wing unionists who would deep in their hearts really like to the the Scottish Parliament disappear and all would be well in the world again as in the glory days of Mrs T.  Alas for them, such a Scotland never existed.
Fiscal responsibility is of course, not just a Tory idea.  It has been LibDem policy, or at least some version of it has been.  The LibDems are after all the historic party of Home Rule and are theoretically at least in favour of a Federal UK.  Strangely Fiscal responsibility has never much appealed to the Labour party.  In this Labour too faces the prospect of a slow decline à la Scottish Tories.  They are in serious danger of becoming more and more defined by their visceral opposition to any further change and to maintaining the UK at any cost.
If the Unionist parties are to succeed in persuading a majority of Scots to stay with the UK, then paradoxically they need to become more independent and Scottish first.  Most Scots want their political parties to represent Scotland and not to be primarily branch parties of the UK.  We will shortly find out if the Tories, of all people, have seized their chance to respond to this key dynamic of Scottish politics.

Monday 3 October 2011

FC Barcelona: 4-3-3 or 3-4-3?

One of the hot topics for aficionados of Barça during the summer was how will the team line up this season.  Especially with the arrival of Cesc Fàbregas, it was reckoned by many that Guardiola would revert to Johan Cruyff's famous 3-4-3 system as a way to incorporate Cesc while still finding space for Xavi and Iniesta.  So far this has proved to be the case.  However it always amazes me that most commentators refer to this 3-4-3 line up as more risky than the traditional   4-3-3.  At first sight 3-4-3 does appear to be a more attack minded line up.  However the conventional way to describe the line-ups do not describe the same thing.  

4-3-3 only describes the defensive system that Barça use when they need to defend.  However, 3-4-3 describes an attacking line-up.  In reality when Barça have to defend they always seek to get their players into a 4-3-3 formation.  This is important as Barça are a very attack minded team and tend to dominate possession of the ball.  What is crucial then is how the team is aligned at the moment when they lose possession of the ball.  For this is when the team is most vulnerable to a counter attack.  

It is therefore better to compare the two attacking line-ups that Barça tend to use.  In this case 4-3-3 becomes much more a 2-3-2-3 line-up.  While 3-4-3 is more accurately described as a 3-1-2-1-3 system.  From this it is obvious that the so-called 4-3-3 line-up as actually as practised by Barça is the more risky option.  With this system, when the team lose possession they only have two defenders in place, while with the other system they always have three defenders in place.  In other words, 3-4-3 is the more secure defensively.

It may be easier to appreciate the difference if we put names to the line-ups.  First the traditional 4-3-3 or more accurately, 2-3-2-3 system.  Recently this has featured the following players, starting from the back.

                           Abidal                          Villa
Piqué                                      Iniesta
                           Busquets                      Messi
Mascheranno                         Xavi
                          Alves                             Pedro

When the team lose the ball, Abidal and Alves move back to form a back four with Piqué and Mascheranno, while Iniesta and Xavi also move back to line up alongside Busquets, thus creating the traditional 4-3-3 defensive set-up.

Now for the 3-4-3 or 3-1-2-1-3 system.  This is how it looks with the following players, again starting from the back.

Abidal                                                                                 Villa
Mascheranno        Busquets                       Fàbregas         Messi
Alves                                                                                   Pedro

In this case, when Barça lose the ball, Busquets would try to get back as quickly as possible to join the back three, while Fàbregas would also move back to play alongside Xavi and Iniesta.  Once again the team is organized in their traditional defensive 4-3-3 set-up.

So, as far as I can see, the so-called 3-4-3 line-up is the more secure defensively, as the team always has three defenders in place.  The other advantage is that the diamond shaped midfield allows Guardiola to play Fàbregas alongside Xavi and Iniesta.  There would appear though to be two downsides to this system.  One was shown in the first half of their away match against Valencia.  There the home team attacked with skill, speed and numbers and caused Barça all kinds of problems and managed to score two goals.  What this shows to me is that against some teams, Guardiola may have to use four defenders.  The crucial point is that the two full backs have to stay back.  In such a situation Barça's attacking line-up would be 4-1-2-3.  The other possible weakness of 3-4-3 is that a lot seems to depend on the use of Fàbregas as the apex of the midfield diamond.  His skill, movement and understanding with Messi has been one of the keys to Barça's attacking threat this season.  Against Sporting, with Fàbregas injured, they tried Pedro in that role, with only limited success.  I'm not sure who else in the squad can fulfil this role with the same effectiveness as Fàbregas.  But it will be interesting to see if Guardiola sticks with this system while Cesc is out injured.  As usual interesting times ahead for Barça.